Mbira Lessons, Mbira UK, Mbira

An Opinion Piece by Ignatius Mabasa- Orignally Published in The Herald

This writing is a reaction and perhaps a reflection. I have a question that is corroding my heart like seeds inside a rattle.

What is it that gives us legitimacy as Zimbabweans to the claim that we are the owners of mbira and marimba music, muchongoyo dance, the maputi snack, the nhodo game and such other cultural products?

Is it just because historically these cultural arts or heritage are attributed to Zimbabwe? Was soccer not invented in England but has now become a religion in Brazil, Spain and even Africa.

I am afraid that our days of claiming to be the people who own mbira and marimba music or Shona sculpture and such other heritages are gone and the centre no longer holds.

Like a deserted bird’s nest full of droppings acts as the only reminder that some bird once inhabited it, I fear that we risk being left holding on to resonators (mateze), snuff (bute) and other ritual regalia like ceremonial axes (makano), traditional cloths (maretso and others), while the soul of the music departed a long time ago.

While cultural heritage is passed down from previous generations, there are some forms of this heritage that require more than just receiving and passing on.

Generally, music requires passion, love, practice and attention to detail. And good traditional music is not made possible just because we Zimbabweans are closer to the ancestors than Americans or Asians.

Neither is good traditional music made possible because we wear dreadlocks and smoke weed. Good traditional music like any other music is a result of patience, passion and practice and more practice.

Some friends living in Santa Fe, USA, recently sent me a marimba CD by an American group called Polyphony Marimba. When I received the CD, I kept it for a few days because I told myself it is probably one of those feeble attempts by white people to play our music. But after listening to the marimba CD by Peter and Raven Swing, it knocked my socks off.

I never imagined marimba music could be so perfect, seamless, flawless to the point of almost making a seed that is resting its sleepy head in the darkness of the soil germinate. If I were the godfather of superlatives, I could have explained better how Polyphony Marimba through their music managed to start a fire without faggots

The Polyphony Marimba music reminded me of what the wind did to a lost and lonely bird’s tufted feather when I was herding cattle as a young boy in Mount Darwin.

The wind would snatch and toss the feather in the sky, making it dance a dance unknown to feathers.

The wind would take the feather places as if mocking the bird that lost that very feather by saying I can still fly without you. Indeed, mbira and marimba music is flying high without us in very far away foreign lands and cultures.

Although you will not get a lot of information on their website, Polyphony Marimba were mentored by the late Dumisani Maraire, father of mbira princess Chiwoniso Maraire.

From their efforts, one can see that the impact of inter-cultural dialogue is long term. Their website says, “Come enjoy roots music of Zimbabwe; dance as we keep alive the music of our mentor, Dumi Maraire, who ‘put the rock & roll in marimba!’

“Listen as we branch out into the songs of Peter and Raven Swing. We offer you vital and complex rhythms, a powerful acoustic tone, beautiful uplifting melodies, danceable and unique.”

I think what makes Polyphony Marimba music addictive, beautiful and unique is the care, the love and time that was invested in making the music. But, the most important ingredient that they added is innovation!

Who would have thought of rocking and rolling Shona traditional music? Speaking as an artiste myself, I can boldly say locally, most artistes are afraid of experimenting.

We tend to be satisfied with the same old things and yet the world is moving, if not flying. And that is where we are losing out – sitting and watching things happen to us, to our cultural heritage.

I know there are proponents for the preserving of our cultural heritage – raw and uncooked. While it is good to be custodians, there is a danger of being custodians that lose or destroy that which they are supposed to keep alive because we are failing to innovate, to repackage to dissect and even turn things on their head.

Doesn’t the proverb say some things need to be tried, the old woman from Chivi cooked stones and people enjoyed the stone soup. Experimenting busts formality and stagnation, it gives us wings.

Things are happening to our culture and heritage and whether we like it or not, we should not see these happenings as a tragedy, but as an opportunity to preserve without being conservative.

allAfrica.com: Zimbabwe: Artistes Must Try New Things (Page 1 of 2).

6 Replies to “Zimbabwe: Artistes Must Try New Things”

  1. I think both must be done. I think the traditional mbira music is of great value and efforts should be made to preserve, teach and perform as well as document it, in the form of transcriptions, recordings and so on. This music is just too good to allow it to be lost.
    But new things should also be added. Exchange with musicians and artists from other parts of the world are not a bad thing. Just as Zimbabwean musicians are also using electric guitars and use it to play their own style of music, for example, musicians from other countries might use Mbiras and develop the music for it into their own directions.
    Tradition is nothing that has ever stayed constant; otherwise all the peoples of Africa would have exactly the same music. The perception of tradition as something static is wrong. The large diversity that exists is the result of creativity and innovation at all times. Every “traditional” tune has been invented once by somebody. The Mbira has once been invented by somebody, starting with simpler instruments. Some things that seem to be old traditions are maybe only a few decades old, others maybe just one or two hundred years. Quite often, cultural developments are the result of international exchange. The Shona sculptures mentioned, for example, are a recent development, started in the late 1950s and, as far as I know, partially triggered by Europeans like Frank McEwen.
    However, observing how music has been developing in Africa over the last 30 years, I see three dangers: The first is the danger of a loss of quality through commercialization. There are too many sad examples of African musicians who choose money over quality and adapted their music to the taste of Europeans or Americans in order to sell more. This is a legitimate choice to make, but it is still regrettable from my point of view.
    On the other side, there might be a danger of music and culture being restricted by nationalistic ideologies. I don’t know if this is the case in Zimbabwe, but generally I think that such ideologies lead to a loss of creativity and quality.
    The third danger is that, in the age of TV and the internet, people from the young generation might be completely turning away from the music of their parents. This trend towards music that is “cool” (but often not very good) moves hand in hand with the trend towards commercialization mentioned above.
    What might help in all these cases would be an attempt to educate young people to appreciate diversity and quality and, as a result, appreciate the music of their ancestors as something worth preserving, but without restricting them to it.

    1. Hope you people don’t mind that I write such a long comment. It is just a topic that moves me a lot. 🙂

    2. Thanks for this comment. Would be great to turn it into a blog post so that more people can see it on the site. If you would like to post it as a blog on Zvembira we can set you up as a contributor. Thanks

      1. That would be nice. I thought myself that this was too long as a comment. Maybe I have to add one or two sentences at the beginning to replace the context of the post it referred to. I will do so in the evening or tomorrow and send the text to you, then you could post it as another opinion piece and I could reblogg it on my own blog. Cheers

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